By Elizabeth Kiefer
Jan 29, 2018 @ 7:45 pm
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

No matter what year it is and what’s happening in the political arena, the Grammys stand apart from other awards season ceremonies. To start with the obvious: They're basically a three-and-a-half-hour-long variety show of the greatest musical hits from the past year, topped with nostalgic sprinkles.

Less about jaw-dropping ensembles and glad handing among A-listers and more about song-and-dance routines against a backdrop of pyrotechnics and elaborate set designs, the Grammys have no patience for understatements. A perfect encapsulation of the ceremony is Lady Gaga, dressed like a mesmerizing taffeta layer cake, reclining on a piano bedecked with oversize angel wings—and that’s exactly the point. If the Oscars are the most glamorous night of the year, then the Grammys are a mainstream, (mostly) family-friendly fantasia for the people. In a word, they’re fun.

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But in the weeks leading up to Sunday night’s performance, it seemed like this year might also be more than just a performance. In light of the #MeToo movement rocking the entertainment industry and the conspicuous presence of Time’s Up at the SAGs and Golden Globes earlier this month, speculation about how the Grammys would acknowledge the cultural moment grew in the weeks before the ceremony. (So was speculation about why there was seemingly no demonstration plan in place.) Would the red carpet have a political tone? Would award winners use their speeches to rail against inequity? Would there be an Oprah moment?

In the end, the answer was: sort of. Kicking off with a mashup performance by Kendrick Lamar—briefly interrupted by Dave Chappelle, who reminded viewers that “the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America”—the opener was equal parts show-stopping entertainment and searing cultural commentary. Lady Gaga used her moment onstage to shout “time’s up!” into the mic and joined stars like Kelly Clarkson and Miley Cyrus in sporting white roses on the red carpet. The flowers themselves—an initiative of Voices in Entertainment, a new coalition formed by music executives in support of Time’s Up—were meant to symbolize peaceful resistance, but they faded into the background, pinned onto lapels and handbags, where they showed up at all.

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Some of the resistance, like Pink’s emotional performance, felt powerful, as did the tribute to last year's tragic terror attacks in Manchester and Las Vegas. A clip of celebrities, including Hillary Clinton, reading aloud from Fire and Fury, the Trump White House exposé, was more of a miss. But it was undeniable that activism was present alongside the entertainment—one thing that separated the Grammys from the other ceremonies this year was that the message of solidarity felt baked into the show. It was a natural part of the performance, just as much as the “Despacito” dance number.

But despite the camaraderie that came out of the evening, the question of whether or not the industry has its own reckoning on the way still hangs in the air. Could it be that music lacks a villain who measures up to the Weinsteins of the world—or at least one who has been outed for his transgressions so publicly? Russell Simmons has so far been a lone bogeyman of the music world, a story that was barely a blip in the news cycle. Then again, given the industry’s habit of letting powerful men, from R. Kelly to Chris Brown and beyond off the hook, it both is and is not surprising that there hasn’t been a bigger news break. Not surprising because it’s par for the course that powerful men get away with abuses of power. Surprising because if there were ever a moment to name names, that moment is here and now.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

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The closest we got to the industry’s acknowledgement of its own issues last night came when Kesha took the stage. Her performance of “Praying” brought the house down and no doubt hit plenty of viewers at home in the heart. It was a powerful image, that choir—which included Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Bebe Rexha, and members of the Resistance Revival Chorus—dressed in white, surrounding her onstage. But that visual is also a stark contrast to the way Kesha was treated by her label in the past. Her album Rainbow is a triumph of song and spirit that came at a high cost, and that it was the standout moment from the 2018 Grammys is both twisted and totally appropriate. Kesha is music’s Rose McGowan: an artist who was once shunned for sharing her trauma and is now finally being embraced as a survivor to stand behind—now that the circumstances have shifted.

Another way in which the music industry’s activism felt different than Hollywood’s: Kesha’s epic backup choir aside, the resonant moments (Camila Cabello’s inspiring speech in support of Dreamers, Janelle Monae’s Time’s Up rallying cry) felt more like solo efforts than a sisterhood banding together. In part, that may have something to do with the nature of musical stardom. Making an album is a more solitary endeavor than making a movie, which means that artists are less interconnected than actors; musicians don’t require the same kind of solidarity in order to pursue their art—a fact that makes a movement that includes or speaks for everyone harder to get off the ground in the first place.

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And, for whatever coalition VIE is capable of achieving on behalf of musicians and labels, household name artists who could be viable representatives for a movement in the music realm haven’t yet volunteered to take the reigns. Music doesn’t have a Meryl Streep, except for maybe Beyoncé, who tends to express herself through her art instead of at the podium; unlike actors, musical artists don’t seem as comfortable monologuing at the podium, which means that they’re less likely to go on off-the-cuff riffs about inequality. (Unless, of course, those artists are Kanye.)

On a brighter note: Last night’s awards ceremony might have been the most diverse in history, thanks to a change in the voting procedure that made it easier for artists to cast their vote. But women ultimately took home less than 20% of all awards, in part representative of the minority nominations they receive in the first place. Janelle Monae may have described an era in which women have the power to make change, but it’s hardly confidence inspiring that Recording Academy president Neil Portnow seems to think the onus is on women to fix the problems.

Mike Coppola/FilmMagic

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“I think it has to begin with women who have creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on an executive level—to step up, because I think they would be welcome,” he said. Judging by that quote, maybe #MeToo hasn’t infiltrated the music ranks because they're still learning the basics. Inspiring as the night's female-led performances may have been, what, really, have music’s power players done to create a safer work environment for the next Kesha? The problem isn’t that women aren’t trying. They problem is that they’re trying—using every platform available to them, including the Grammys—but the right people aren’t listening.